Scientists in the studio

by Prof. Arthur I. Miller

Artsci is “not only sexy, it’s seductive, it goes places where nobody has really gone before,” Gerfried Stocker, artistic director of Ars Electronica, told me. To achieve this level of work requires a special alchemy between artist and scientist.

Most attempts at artist/scientist interaction have involved artists work- ing with scientists in their laboratories. At minimum the artist should know something about science. So it is not surprising that the majority of artist/ scientist collaborations have been in the biological sciences where artists can get up to speed on fundamentals and even participate in experiments. This is not the case in physics, certainly not at CERN. We are in the Age of Information, the age of big data and CERN is all about data. In my opinion, the most successful residency in the Collide@CERN programme is that of the data visualisation artist Ryoji Ikeda who produced stunning works based on patterns hidden in data, patterns which are nature’s DNA.

In my recent book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art, I explored artist/scientist collaborations, a topic, which to my surprise, had hardly been touched upon before. When I interviewed scientists who had collaborated with artists and asked them how they had benefitted from the experience they replied as if they were all reading from the same script. A typical reply was, “It made me more visual in my work.” But has there not always been a strong visual component in scientific research? Take a look at scientists’ notebooks. They are covered in drawings. I am more convinced by comments to the effect that they appreciated another perspective on research, one that can sometimes be more freewheeling. Whether this helped them is another matter.

In the course of a panel I once chaired I happened to bring up the topic of science-influenced art, meaning art which takes science as its theme. To my amazement I was accused of claiming a hierarchy of science over art. This is the unfortunate opinion held by too many artists who want to collaborate with scientists or, at least, want to use scientific themes in their work. Some of those artists hold beliefs such as that artists are creative, scientists not; and that artists use science like paint in a can. These unfortunate attitudes can be traced back to artists failing to understand what scientists are up to and can be alleviated by scientists visiting artists’ studios and speaking to groups of artists rather than artists visiting scientists.

What sort of scientists might be willing to do this? Ken Arnold, until recently the Wellcome Collection’s head of public programmes, told me that the most likely candidates would be “young scientists willing to take risks and who are highly investigative.” The point here is that science departments tend to frown upon scientists working with artists and consider it a waste of time, which would put young scientists’ careers at risk. This is unfortunate because these scientists see no hierarchy of art and science, and neither should the informed artist. It also shows the need for artists to visit science departments and discuss their own science-inspired art, in other words, establish their credibility. Just as many artists don’t understand and appreciate the scientific world, so scientists don’t understand art and the world of artists.

Arnold put it well when he said that “collaboration is damned difficult.” And it is made even more difficult when, all too often, the scientist’s name is not included when the work of ‘art’ is exhibited. This ‘art’ is a special kind of art – artsci, the product of collaboration between an artist and a scientist in which, to put it bluntly, no science, no art. This is particularly relevant in the case of establishment art galleries whose curators all too often frown on arts- ci, claiming that it violates sacred canons such as durability and uniqueness. This is due, in no small part, to the curators’ lack of knowledge of science and technology.

I wanted to have my book subtitled, “How Cutting-Edge Science Redefined Contemporary Art and Vice Versa,” to emphasise that art can also affect science. This is rare but something that the “Scientist-In-Residency Programme” (a collaboration between Gluon, Ars Electronica, BOZAR, the Serpentine Gallery and several universities and research institutions) should aim for. Instances where this has occurred include the way in which Cubist art helped the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr discover the Complementarity Principle, a fundamental law of quantum physics. Another example is the work of Bristol University scientist David Glowacki who heads a team of artists, scientists and engineers which came up with a dance programme called “Hidden Fields.” This combines cutting-edge interactive digital art and dance with rigorous molecular physics. All three disciplines shed light on each other. In addition, the superfast algorithms cooked up for the dance programme have proved useful to scientists studying how protein molecules combine in the phenomenon of ‘folding’, the way in which organs evolve in the embryo. Any anomalies could be disastrous. As Glowacki states, “This is an unexpected bonus on the frontier of a combined artistic and scientific creativity.”

The ideal arrangement would be to have a scientist embedded in the studio of a major artist who is interested in and knowledgeable about science, such as Anthony Gormley, Damián Ortega, Rachel Rose, and Keith Tyson.

I envision the scientist-in-residency programme as a way of better acquainting scientists with how artists think. In this way the path will be opened wider to a new breed of artist who combines art, science and technology. In my numerous interviews for Colliding Worlds I found that in the 21st century art, science and technology as we know them are disappearing, fusing into a third culture, a new avant-garde. This new breed of artist-scientist is at the centre of this new avant-garde and work in the frontier area of machine-generated art, literature and music. At present the emphasis is on technologically savvy artists as well as artistically savvy computer scientists, who collaborate with machines, each bootstrapping the creativity of the other. This is precisely what Stocker and I mean by the term artsci. Peter Weibel, the eminent video artist and chairman of the Centre for Arts and Media, ZKM, in Karlsruhe, Germany, and a former artistic director of Ars Electronica, agrees. As he told me, “Today art is a product of science and technology.”

This advanced form of artsci is at the leading edge of the shock wave that includes artists and scientists collaborating. The admirable and important aim of the effort, initiated by Gluon, is to set the arrow of artist/scientist collaborations to run both ways, thereby providing further traction for the new avant-garde.

Professor Arthur I. Miller
Arthur I. Miller is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London. His recent book is Colliding Worlds: How Cutting- Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art. Currently he is completing a book on Artificial Intelligence and creativity. See and www.